Brando was born to Marlon Brando Sr. (1895–1965) and Dorothy Pennebaker Brando (1897-1954) in Omaha, Nebraska. In 1935, when he was 11 years old, his parents separated. His mother briefly took her three children (Marlon, Jocelyn (1919–2005) and Frances Brando (b. 1922)) to live with her mother in Santa Ana, California, until 1937 when the parents reconciled and moved to Libertyville, Illinois, a village northwest of Chicago. The family were of primarily Dutch, Irish, German, and English stock. Although Brando claimed his grandfather was a Frenchman, Eugene Brandeaux (and this was repeated by some biographers), this was incorrect, his grandparents being in fact Eugene Brando and Marie Holloway, who abandoned her husband and child when Brando's father was five years old. The Brando family had been long settled in New York state, being earlier spelled Brandow and originating with a German immigrant Johann Wilhelm Brandau who settled in America in the early 1700s. Brando's mother was a kind and talented woman, although she suffered from alcoholism and was frequently absent in Brando's childhood. She was involved in local theater and helped a young Henry Fonda to begin his own acting career, and fueled Brando's interest in stage acting. Brando was a gifted mimic from early childhood and developed a rare ability to absorb the tics and mannerisms of people he played and to display those traits dramatically while staying in character. His elder sister, Jocelyn Brando, was also an actress.
Brando had a tumultuous childhood. He was held back a year in school and was later expelled from Libertyville High School. At the age of 16, he was sent to Shattuck Military Academy in Fairbault, Minnesota where his father had gone before him. At Shattuck, he excelled at theater and got along well within the structure of the school. In his final year (1943), he was put on probation for talking back to an officer during maneuvers. A part of his probation was that he be confined to the school campus. But he eventually tried sneaking off campus into town and was caught. The faculty voted to expel him. He received support from his fellow students who thought the punishment too harsh. He was later invited back for the next year, but decided not to finish school.
He worked as a ditch-digger in his hometown as a summer job arranged by his father. But he had decided to follow his sisters to New York. One sister was trying to be a painter and the other had already appeared on Broadway. He had actually visited his sister Frances in New York at Christmas 1942 and liked the experience. Brando was given six months of support from his father, after which his father offered to help him get a job as a salesman. Brando left Illinois for New York City, where he studied at the American Theatre Wing Professional School, New School Dramatic Workshop, and the Actors' Studio. It was at the New School's Dramatic Workshop that he studied with Stella Adler and learned the techniques of the Stanislavski System. There is a story, which may be apocryphal, in which Adler spoke about teaching Brando; saying that she had instructed the class to act like chickens, then adding that a bomb was about to fall on them. Most of the class clucked and ran around wildly, but Brando sat calmly and pretended to lay an egg. When Adler asked Brando to explain his actions, he replied, "I'm a chicken - What do I know from a bomb?"
Brando used his Stanislavski System skills for his first summer-stock roles in Sayville, New York on Long Island. His behavior got him kicked out of the cast of the New School's production in Sayville, but he was discovered in a locally produced play there and then made it to Broadway in the bittersweet drama I Remember Mama in 1944. Critics voted him "Broadway's Most Promising Actor" for his role as an anguished veteran in Truckline Café, although the play was a commercial failure. He achieved real stardom, however, as Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams' play A Streetcar Named Desire in 1947, directed by Elia Kazan. Brando sought out that role, driving out to Provincetown, Massachusetts, where Williams was spending the summer, to audition for the part. Williams recalled that he opened the screen door and knew, instantly, that he had his Stanley Kowalski. Brando's performance revolutionized acting technique and set the model for the American form of method acting. This type or role was never seen before and all similar roles mirror Brando's.
Afterward, Brando was asked to do a screen test for Warner Bros. studio. The screen test appears as an extra in the 2006 DVD release of A Streetcar Named Desire.
Brando's first screen role was as the bitter paraplegic veteran in The Men in 1950. True to his method, Brando spent a month in bed at a veterans' hospital to prepare for the role.
He made a much stronger impression the following year when he brought his performance as Stanley Kowalski to the screen in Kazan's adaptation of Streetcar in 1951. He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor for that role, and again in each of the next three years for his roles in Viva Zapata! in 1952, Julius Caesar in 1953 as Marc Antony, and On the Waterfront in 1954. These first five films of Brando's career featured performances of monumental proportions and essentially set a new standard not just for all other actors but also for Brando himself.
In 1953, he also starred in Lee Falk's play Arms and the Man. Falk was proud to tell people that Marlon Brando turned down an offer of $10,000 per week to act on Broadway, in favor of working on Falk's play in Boston. His Boston contract was less than $500 per week. It would be the last time he ever acted in a stage play.
Brando became a hero for the younger generation by playing motorcycle rebel Johnny Strabler in the movie The Wild One. He created the rebel image for the rock-and-roll era. Many rock-and-rollers like Elvis Presley imitated Brando's look and character. Elvis took it to another level by bringing the rebel image to the rock-and-roll fans. Elvis also copied Brando's role as Johnny while playing Vince in his 1957 movie Jailhouse Rock. Brando's explosive screen presence exuded a raw sexuality that drew repeat ticket purchases among female theater goers of all ages. Theater managers related accounts of sold out weekday matiness where small children ran up and down the aisle making motorcycle noises while their mothers sat transfixed.
Marlon Brando was known to be a hero for James Dean, who was said to have idolized him and copied his acting and persona.
However, this has been proved to be untrue by people who knew the two actors.
William Bast, a famous screen writer at that time, compared Marlon's acting style to be "heavy as lead" while James was more "mercurial and light".
Director Nick Ray even took the gang image from the movie The Wild One and brought it to this movie and thus emphasized Brando's effect on the youth.
All the rebel culture that included motorcycle, leather jackets, jeans and the whole rebel image, that inspired generations of rebels, came thanks to the movie The Wild One and Brando's own unique image and character. The sales of motorcycle related paraphernalia, leather jackets, jeans, boots and Tee shirts skyrocketed throughout the country. The film had a similar effect on overseas audiences and local authorities and religious figures lamented the effect it was having on the youth of their respective countries.
Brando finally won the Oscar for his role of Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront. Under Kazan's direction, and with a talented ensemble around him, Brando used his Stanislavski System training and improvisational skills. Brando claimed that he had improvised much of his dialogue with Rod Steiger in the famous, much-quoted scene with him in the back of a taxicab ("I could have been a contender"). Kazan disputed this.
Brando followed that triumph by a variety of roles in the 1950s that defied expectations: as Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls, where he managed to carry off a singing role; as Sakini, a Japanese interpreter for the U.S. Army in postwar Japan in The Teahouse of the August Moon; as an Air Force officer in Sayonara; and a Nazi officer in The Young Lions. While he won an Oscar nomination for his acting in Sayonara, his acting had lost much of its energy and direction by the end of the 1950s.
In the 1960s Brando starred in films such as Mutiny on the Bounty (1962); One-Eyed Jacks (1961), a western that would be the only film Brando would ever direct; Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), portraying a repressed gay army officer; and Burn! (1969), which Brando would later claim as his personal favorite, although it was a commercial failure. Nonetheless, his career had gone into almost complete eclipse by the end of the decade thanks to his reputation as a difficult star and his record in overbudget or marginal movies.
His performance as Vito Corleone in The Godfather in 1972 was a mid- career turning point. Director Francis Ford Coppola convinced Brando to submit to a "make-up" test, in which Brando did his own makeup (he used cotton balls to simulate the puffed-cheek look). Coppola was electrified by Brando's characterization as the head of a crime family, but had to fight the studio in order to cast the temperamental Brando whose reputation for difficult behavior and demands was stuff of backlot legend. Incredibly, the studio suits wanted to give the role to Danny Thomas in the hope that Thomas would have his own production company throw in its lot with Paramount. Thomas had the good sense to decline the role and actually urged the studio to cast Brando at the behest of Coppola and others who had witnessed the screen test. Brando was nothing less than sensational in the role with the "sit down" scene between rival mobsters generally described as one of the greatest moments in film history. Brando won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance; once again, he improvised important details that lent more humanity to what could otherwise have been a clichéd role. Brando turned down the Academy Award, the second actor to refuse a Best Actor Oscar (the first being George C. Scott for Patton). Brando boycotted the award ceremony, sending little-known actress Sacheen Littlefeather to state his reasons, which were based on his objections to the depiction of Native Americans by Hollywood and television.
The actor followed with one of his greatest performances in Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris, but the performance was overshadowed by an uproar over the erotic nature of the film. Despite the controversies which attended both the film and the man, the Academy once again nominated Brando for the Best Actor.
His career afterwards was uneven. He was paid one million dollars a week to play Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. He was supposed to show up slim, fit, and to have read the book Heart of Darkness. He showed up weighing around 220 pounds and hadn't read Heart of Darkness. This is why his character was shot mostly in the shadows and most of his dialogue was improvised. After his week was over Director Francis Ford Coppola ask him to stay an extra hour to so he could shoot a close up of him saying, "The horror, the horror." Brando agreed for an extra $75,000. After this film his weight began to limit the roles he could play.
Brando also played Jor-El, Superman's father, in the first Superman movie — a role he agreed to only on assurance that he was paid an enormous sum for what amounted to a small part, that he did not have to read the script beforehand and his lines would be displayed somewhere off-camera.
Brando also filmed scenes for the movie's sequel, Superman II, but the producers refused to pay him the enormous percentage he was paid for the first movie, so he denied them permission to use the footage. However, after Brando's death the footage was re-incorporated into the 2006 re-cut of the film, Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut.
Two years after his death, he "reprised" the role of Jor-El in the 2006 "loose sequel" Superman Returns, in which both used and unused archive footage of Brando as Jor-El from the first two Superman films was remastered for a scene in the Fortress of Solitude, as well as Brando's voice-overs being used throughout the film.
Other later performances, such as The Island of Dr Moreau, earned him some of the most uncomplimentary reviews of his career. Despite announcing his retirement from acting in 1980, he subsequently gave interesting supporting performances in movies such as A Dry White Season (for which he was again nominated for an Oscar in 1989), The Freshman in 1990 and Don Juan DeMarco in 1995. He also met and befriended his co-star in that movie, Johnny Depp during filming of it. In 1992 Tim Burton offered Marlon Brando the role of the Penguin in Batman Returns. Brando accepted but Warner Bros. didn't approve. In his last film, The Score (2001), he starred with fellow method actor Robert De Niro.
Brando conceived the idea of a novel called Fan-Tan with director Donald Cammell in 1979, which was not released until 2005. Interestingly, Cammell dated and eventually married the daughter of one of Brando's girlfriends, Anita Loo aka Anita Kong; the daughter being China Kong.
Brando became known as much for his crusades for civil rights, Native American rights and other political causes as he was for his acting. He also earned a "bad boy" reputation for his public outbursts and antics. In June 1973, Brando broke paparazzo Ron Galella's jaw. His hand became infected as a result. In the following year, Galella wore a football helmet when snapping photos of Brando.
In his autobiography Songs My Mother Taught Me, Brando claimed he showed up one night at Marilyn Monroe's apartment and they started an affair that lasted many years. He also claimed numerous other romances, although he did not discuss his marriages, his wives, or his children in his autobiography.
In his 1976 biography The Only Contender by Gary Carey, Brando was quoted as saying, "Like a large number of men, I, too, have had homosexual experiences, and I am not ashamed." Photographs circulate on the Internet that appear to confirm this. An alleged long time lover was Wally Cox. Brando is quoted as saying: "If Wally had been a woman, I would have married him and we would have lived happily ever after." After Cox died, Brando kept his ashes for 30 years, and they were eventually scattered with his own. Cox's third wife only discovered he possessed them after reading an interview in Time where Brando is quoted as saying: "I have Wally's ashes in my house. I talk to him all the time." She wanted to sue, but her lawyers would not accept the case. A 2006 biography, "Brando: Unzipped", suggested Brando had affairs with Cary Grant and Rock Hudson.
He married actress Anna Kashfi in 1957, mistakenly believing her to be of Indian descent when she was in fact from Wales and of Irish Roman Catholic extraction. Her real name was Joan O'Callaghan. O'Callaghan did not discourage Brando's mistake; in fact, she dressed and made herself up as an Indian beauty after learning that Brando gravitated toward exotic women. They divorced in 1959 after having one son together, Christian Brando.
In 1960, Brando married Movita Castaneda, a Mexican actress seven years his senior; they were divorced in 1962. Castaneda had appeared in the first Mutiny on the Bounty film in 1935, some 27 years before the 1962 remake with Brando as Fletcher Christian. Brando's behavior during the filming of Bounty seemed to bolster his reputation as a difficult star. He was blamed for a change in director and a runaway budget, though he disclaimed responsibility for either.
The Bounty experience affected Brando's life in a profound way. He fell in love with Tahiti and its people. He took a 99-year lease on part of an atoll island, Tetiaroa, which he intended to make part environmental laboratory and part resort. Tahitian beauty Tarita Teriipia, who played Fletcher Christian's love interest, became Brando's third wife on 10 August 1962: at just 20 years old,Tarita was 18 years younger than Brando at the time of their marriage. A 1961 article on Teriipia in the fan magazine Motion Picture described Brando's delight at how naïve and unsophisticated she was. Teriipia became the mother of two of his children. They divorced in July 1972. Brando eventually had a hotel built on Tetiaroa; it went through many redesigns due to changes demanded by Brando over the years, but it is now closed. A new hotel consisting of 30 deluxe villas is due to open in 2008.
In May 1990, Christian shot and killed Dag Drollet, the Tahitian lover of Christian's half-sister Cheyenne, at the family's hilltop home above Beverly Hills. Christian, then 31, claimed the shooting was accidental.
After a heavily publicized trial, Christian was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter and use of a gun. He was sentenced to 10 years. Before the sentencing, Brando delivered an hour of rambling testimony in which he said he and his ex-wife had failed Christian. He commented softly to members of the Drollet family: "I'm sorry... If I could trade places with Dag, I would. I'm prepared for the consequences." Afterward, Drollet's father said he thought Brando was acting and his son was "getting away with murder." The tragedy was compounded in 1995, when Cheyenne, said to still be depressed over Drollet's death, committed suicide by hanging herself in Tahiti at the age of 25. Only months after Marlon Brando's death, Brando's third wife Tarita Teriipia wrote her memoirs entitled Marlon, My Love and My Torment.
Brando's notoriety, his family's troubled lives, his self-exile from Hollywood, and his obesity attracted more attention than his late acting career. He also earned a reputation for being difficult on the set, often unwilling or unable to memorize his lines and less interested in taking direction than in confronting the film director with odd and childish demands. On the other hand, most other actors found him generous, funny and supportive. Although more and more reclusive in his declining years, Brando was by nature a casual and friendly man.
He dabbled with some innovation in his last years. Brando has several patents issued in his name from the US Patent and Trademark Office, all of which are directed to a drumhead tensioning device and method, between June 2002 and November 2004. For example see U.S. Patent 6812392 and its equivalents.
The actor was a long-time close friend of the entertainer Michael Jackson and paid regular visits to his Neverland Ranch, resting there for weeks. Brando also participated in the singer's solo career 30th anniversary celebration concerts in 2001, as well as starring in his 15-minute-long music video You Rock My World the same year. The actor's son Miko was Jackson's bodyguard and assistant for several years, and is also a friend of the singer. He stated "The last time my father left his house to go anywhere, to spend any kind of time... was with Michael Jackson." "He loved it... [He] had a 24-hour chef, 24-hour security, 24-hour help, 24-hour kitchen, 24-hour maid service."
On July 1, 2004 Brando died at the age of 80. The cause of his death was intentionally withheld, with his lawyer citing privacy concerns. It was later revealed that he died at UCLA Medical Center of respiratory failure brought on by pulmonary fibrosis. He had also been suffering from congestive heart failure and, had also recently been diagnosed with liver cancer. In the last year of his life he had been receiving hospital treatment for failing eyesight due to diabetes. It was revealed in 2006 that Brando had suffered from dementia in the final years of his life.
Brando was cremated and his ashes were scattered in two places. Part of his ashes were scattered in Tahiti and part of his ashes were scattered in Death Valley.